Vicar's Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, December 8, 2019. The Second Sunday in Advent (Advent 1 - Year A).

St. Matthew 3: 1-12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our actions have consequences, we all know that. It’s a lesson we learn fairly early in life, and it's a hard lesson to learn. Putting on my coat in front of a door mirror, as we were leaving her house I said, “Jean, is your mirror dirty or is that me?” A kid eight years old I could not have known that was embarrassing to her, but I found out when I got home how rude was the remark when my aunt warmed up my backside with a yardstick! A lesson in civility that I learned the hard way!

During Advent our attention is drawn to the truth that our actions have consequences. Depending upon the nature of our actions, we speak of reward or punishment. In the Middle Ages Christians talked about what they called “The Four Last Things.” They are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Consequences of our actions. The theology of these “last things” is what we call “eschatology,” meaning “a word about last things” or “last days.” Perhaps Fr. Eberly shared with you last week that in Advent we take a long, hard look at these Four Last Things.

These themes were of great interest to Christians in Europe at the time of the Black Death, a plague that took the lives of perhaps two hundred million people. Today, we give little or no attention to “The Four Last Things,” because our God is merciful and kind. But God is a just God, and sometimes if justice is to prevail the Judge must hand down a severe penalty.

On what basis are we judged?

A teacher asked her students, “If I were to squeeze this lemon as hard as I could, what would come out?” A student replied, “Well, juice, of course.”
Teacher: “Do you think orange juice would come out of it?”
Student: “Of course not, it's a lemon!”
Teacher: “How about apple juice, would apple juice come out of it?”
Student: “Of course not, it's a lemon!”
Teacher: “How about grapefruit juice, do you think grapefruit juice would come out of it?”
Student: “Of course not, it’s a lemon!”
Teacher: “Tell me, then, what would come out of it?”
Student: “Lemon juice, of course!”
Teacher: “Why? Why is it that when you squeeze a lemon, lemon juice comes out?”
Student: “Well, it’s a lemon, and that’s what’s inside.”

Jesus says that we are judged, not on appearances, what people perceive about us, but by what emanates from within. Who we really are is seen in our actions, detected in our speech. He admonishes us to “bear good fruit,” and in our Gospel text for this morning he reminds us that “a tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

This is the judgment: utter annihilation, to be cut off from the presence of God forever. Judgment and Hell are two of “The Four Last Things.” In referring to “fire” Jesus does not mean for us to take this literally, but earliest Christian thinking about “hell” held no reservation that “hell” was a fiery place of eternal torment for the damned. Later Christian artists would embellish this idea to great extreme.

Yet today this image prevails in the thinking of many Christians. Many years ago I was present at an Independent Baptist Church for a Sunday evening service. It was a hot August night in Indianapolis. The church was sparsely filled, and for good reason, in those days when air conditioning was quite a luxury. The pastor called on what I assumed was the grand old matriarch of the congregation to offer the “evening prayer.” In a Baptist church a morning or evening prayer could be a mini sermon! This past Wednesday at our Healing Mass I was asked to pray for a young couple who had made an offer on a house. My prayer was rather long, and when the Mass was over I sort of apologized for getting carried away. The person with whom I was praying replied, “I know, they could have built a house in that time!”

Well, this well-meaning matriarch of that Baptist church called upon God to bring the many people who were not at that evening service to judgment by “dangling their feet over the fires of hell” so that they could get a taste of what they were going to get if they continued to neglect God by not coming to the stated times of worship at that church.

In our recitation of the Nicene Creed we say, “He (meaning Jesus) will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” If we are reckoned among the faithful ours is a living, eternal existence in the presence of the glory of God. If we are judged unworthy of this inheritance we will be cut off from the presence of the living in eternal death.

Jesus tells us that at this very moment “. . . the ax is lying at the root of the trees . . .” The Judgment is pending. Will we be left standing, or will we be “. . . cut down and thrown into the fire”? If we bear good fruit in our lives, meaning the actions and speech which clearly define whose we are, viz., God's, we need have no concern that the ax, which is lying at the very root of our lives, will ever be raised against us. Actions, which encourage others to say of us, “That person walks in the light of God’s grace”. . . speech, which is never fowl nor judging of others . . . these examples, and many others you can perceive, will be the marks of those who have taken up their Cross and followed Jesus. They need never fear death, judgment, or hell.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"